Heading to Watkins Glen this weekend, Jimmie Johnson is basking in the glow of a miraculous 13th-place finish that could have ended up far worse. Making up 20 spots in the final 20 laps of the race, the No. 48's charge through the field was fascinating television as he made mincemeat out of his competition in the final few circuits. Coming from three-laps down in the final 150 miles, Johnson's comeback was the racing equivalent of getting away with murder.
To make up over 7.5 miles on one of NASCAR's biggest tracks, Johnson used not pure speed but a loophole that's come under great scrutiny in recent weeks. The free pass -- often referred to as the Lucky Dog -- has been in place since 2003 and gives the first driver off the lead lap a lap back every time a caution flag comes out. Developed after safety concerns eliminated the old system of racing back to the yellow, it was a compromise for both fans and teams concerned that cars now had no chance of fighting back after falling a lap or more off the pace. In the past, a gentleman's agreement between competitors was in place, one which often caused the leader to slow for the yellow and allow a handful of cars behind him to get their laps back. But with the new rules freezing the field before the start/finish line, people felt an adjustment was needed for drivers to still have that same opportunity.
The Lucky Dog has had its share of ups and downs. When used right, it's a way to atone for freak incidents like a flat tire that leaves a top-5 driver trapped a lap off the pace. And with just one free spot awarded per caution flag, the racing among lapped cars is fast and furious for a reward that could earn them as many as 50 or 60 extra points by the finish of a race. While critics used to claim these cars could also get their lap back the hard way -- by both catching and passing the leader following a caution flag -- another change to the rules has made that all but impossible. With the advent of double-file restarts, lapped cars are now trapped at the back of the pack, clearing the way for the leaders and leaving them unable to make up the distance under green.
Yet over the past few years, the rule's good intentions have been lost to driver abuse. As the series has become more competitive, the Lucky Dog is finding itself used for all the wrong reasons. When Joey Logano spun out at New Hampshire this June, his car was clearly incapable of running in the top 10. But since a number of cautions left every car on the lead lap, he immediately received a free pass one caution later, allowing him to pit for extra fuel and eventually score a monumental upset. Under the old system, not only would Logano have no chance to get his lap back, but his car would be exactly where it belonged: paying for a driver error far from Victory Lane.
Now, we have Johnson's three-lap joyride from Monday, allowing recovery from a power problem that would have left him well outside the top 30 otherwise. While the driver's final result doesn't matter at this point -- he's a lock to make the Chase -- can you imagine fan reaction if he'd been given the same amount of freebies during the playoffs? To win a title, you need a certain amount of help from the racing Gods, but there's a critical difference between a lucky break and using a loophole one too many times.
It's ironic Johnson's ritual abuse comes right before a return trip to the Glen, the sight of this rule's biggest black eye. In the 2006 race, a mechanical problem sent Kyle Busch behind the wall, which under the old system would make it impossible for him to work his way back into contention. After all, road courses were the one place where the field lined up single-file on restarts, meaning even if Busch got a lap back the hard way (by passing the leader) he'd have to line up in the rear of the field under the next caution, leaving him with 35 cars to pass simply to get back to the front. Eight or nine years ago, that would have left him finishing around 40th place.
But after coming back on the race track, Busch looked like the luckiest man alive thanks to the Lucky Dog. With a rash of cautions breaking out on the 2.45-mile road course, there were no other cars a lap down, meaning Busch was continually given the free pass to get a lap back. After five free passes, Busch went from five-laps down to actually having a shot to win toward the finish. Working his way through the field in a hurry, he wound up ninth to score one of the unlikeliest top-10 finishes in modern history.
That caused an uproar similar to what we're seeing in the wake of Johnson's hefty withdrawal from the luck bank this week. Back then, the sport chose to do nothing ... but this time around, that would be a critical mistake. With that in mind, I think there are two quick and easy fixes to ensure no one takes advantage of this rule ever again:
Limit each driver to one free pass per race. It's one thing if a flat tire or an ill-handling car early drops you a lap behind. But if you're forced to use a free pass a second time, it just isn't your day at that point. There's got to be a clear difference between giving a guy a lucky break and basically holding his hand to help him get back in position to win the race.
Never give the free pass to a driver more than one lap down. Sure, every once in a while you'll have a short track where one of the best cars falls two laps off the pace after an unscheduled green flag pit stop. But in reality, 98 percent of the time that's too much distance to make up over the course of a real race. So why create a free advantage for a driver that wouldn't be able to get one otherwise? If you fall two or more laps off the pace, chances are you don't deserve to win the race. So, let's not give drivers that chance.
With the Chase races looming, the time is now for NASCAR to implement these changes before another case of the Lucky Dog run amok. Critics might argue this type of abuse happens in only a handful of races each year. But the longer you leave a loophole out there, the greater the chance it'll be used at the most inappropriate time. And with a terrible spate of negative PR as of late, the sport can't afford the criticism that would follow from such a tragic mistake.
There's still no announcement on who'll drive for Joe Gibbs Racing's fourth team, which is set to run a handful of races at the end of this year. With that in mind, it looks increasingly unlikely the team will expand to four full-time teams in 2010. But keep an eye on a young man named Matt DiBenedetto, a Joey Logano-type currently tearing it up in Camping World East. With two wins in just five starts, he's scheduled to debut in a Nationwide car at Memphis in October. The plan is to move him up to a bigger slate of Nationwide races next year, and if all goes well, don't be surprised if he's filling that fourth seat at JGR down the road.
All indications are that Ford's new engine will debut sometime within the next two months. It can't come soon enough, as at Pocono no Blue Ovals cracked the top 10 for the second time in the past four weeks. And while Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth appear to be running well enough to make the Chase, Greg Biffle's lack of success at certain tracks down the stretch leaves him vulnerable to becoming the odd man out.
While teammate Sam Hornish, Jr. is getting the hang of this stock car thing, finishing a career-best fourth at Pocono, David Stremme's antics with Robby Gordon on the race track had to be just about the final straw for Roger Penske. With Stremme without a top-10 finish in the same car that won the 2008 Daytona 500 with Ryan Newman, the question isn't if he'll be released after the season but when. Nationwide standouts Brad Keselowski and Justin Allgaier (a Penske development driver) are rumored as possible replacements.